The Secretary of State was asked—
Referendum on the Future of Northern Ireland
My apologies for not being with you in person, Mr Speaker, but as you know, I am self-isolating at the moment.
The UK Government are fully committed to the requirements set out in the Belfast/Good Friday agreement in relation to the circumstances that require the Secretary of State to hold a referendum on a change in the constitutional status of Northern Ireland. It remains my view that the majority of the people of Northern Ireland continue to support Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom.
It is now just seven weeks before we embark on the biggest change to our trading arrangements that we have seen for a generation, yet food producers still have no idea what arrangements they have to put in place to trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. Does the Secretary of State agree that the Government’s avoidable failure to prepare now risks damaging Northern Ireland’s integral place in the UK internal market?
I simply do not agree with that outline. Apart from the discussions that I have had with food producers and, indeed, the suppliers and retailers of food across Northern Ireland, one of the key things we have always been focused on delivering is unfettered access for Northern Ireland businesses to the market across the whole United Kingdom. We are still focused and determined to do that, and that is what the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill delivers. I am confident that the work of the specialist joint committee will be completed to ensure that we continue to have that good, free flow of goods, so that Northern Ireland continues not just to be an integral part of the United Kingdom, but to have a unique opportunity to develop its economy as we leave the European Union after the transition period, from January 2021.
The Secretary of State will be aware that the conversation about our constitutional future is happening right across our community and every family in Northern Ireland. Of course, the Good Friday agreement provides the mechanism for dealing with that constitutional future through a unity referendum. Will the Secretary of State tell us exactly what criteria he will use in future to determine when a border poll will be called?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman in the sense of people having a strong constitutional debate. We are seeing that across the United Kingdom and I encourage that; I think it is important that we all look at and discuss the strength and importance of the Union. In Northern Ireland, we have seen about £2.4 billion of support, because it is part of the UK, as we deal with covid. On his specific question, the High Court, in a recent judicial review on this very matter, agreed that there is no legal requirement, nor that it is in the public interest for the Government to set out a specific policy detailing any fixed criteria on the holding of a poll.
Union between Northern Ireland and the Rest of the UK
We have always as a Government stressed the importance of the Union. The UK is a family of nations and a Union of people that works for everyone. We share cultural, social and economic ties that together make us safer, more secure and more prosperous. As a Government, we are absolutely committed to levelling up across the whole UK, taking every opportunity to strengthen the economy of Northern Ireland and its place in the United Kingdom. We have shown this, as I say, through the £2.4 billion that we have supplied to support Northern Ireland through the fight against coronavirus, including the extra £900 million announced in the summer and the £200 million announced as part of the winter economy plan.
Absolutely. It is imperative that we ensure that the UK internal market continues to function effectively and efficiently at the end of the transition period. A strong UK internal market provides benefits to our domestic businesses and consumers, as my hon. Friend outlines, and it gives confidence to our external trading partners. That is why we as a Government have been very clear that there should be no tariffs on internal UK trade—that we want to deliver that unfettered access for Northern Ireland businesses, Of course, we are ensuring that unfettered access for goods moving from Northern Ireland to Great Britain as provided for in the protocol.
Yes, absolutely. We have committed £617 million already for the city and growth deals programme in Northern Ireland. That is the largest across the United Kingdom, together with the complementary inclusive future fund. That commitment has been matched by the Northern Ireland Executive, so the funding totals more than £1.2 billion, which provides a real opportunity to deliver on that levelling-up programme. Such initiatives help to drive growth and innovation in local economies, and have a positive and lasting impact on employment, skills, infrastructure, tourism and regeneration. That will benefit people across Northern Ireland and, indeed, the United Kingdom.
Northern Ireland has had higher covid-19 rates than any other part of the United Kingdom in this second wave, yet its calls for the furlough scheme to be extended to cover lockdown were ignored for almost three weeks until the Government finally caught up with the rest of the country. Despite repeated questioning, however, it is still totally unclear whether the furlough scheme will be extended for Northern Ireland and the other devolved Administrations. Can the Secretary of State tell us whether Northern Ireland will receive the full backing of the 80% furlough scheme should it extend or reintroduce restrictions?
The 80% furlough scheme ran until the end of October, and the Government announced an extension so it will continue for businesses that need it until 2 December. The Treasury has been clear about this. The Prime Minister and the Chancellor will keep it under review, because we want to make sure that we get the support there for people who need it. Our track record has shown that we have done that. We continue to do that and to make sure that support is there for the people and businesses that need it across Northern Ireland.
That is just not good enough. Northern Ireland has been in lockdown since 16 October and has not had the furlough scheme in place. The Prime Minister confirmed on Monday that the furlough scheme would be in place for the devolved Administrations should they need it. The confusion reflects the complete contempt with which the Government treat the devolved Administrations.
Further to the commitments made by the Government, significant sections of New Decade, New Approach, which supported the reinstatement of the Northern Ireland Executive, have still not been delivered. Key among the promises was to increase police numbers to 7,500 in Northern Ireland. Will the Secretary of State now ensure that that promise is kept and that the upcoming Finance Bill is used to deliver the funding for vital community policing?
In the hon. Lady’s question, she outlined the answer about furlough in a sense, because the scheme has been in place. It was in place until the end of October and the Chancellor has extended it to 2 December, so it covers the period for which Northern Ireland has had extra restrictions. We have been working with the devolved Administrations and the Northern Ireland Executive throughout the period. I meet and speak regularly to the First and Deputy First Ministers.
That scheme is on top of the £2.4 billion of support that the Government have put in place through the Barnett consequentials formula to ensure that the Northern Ireland Executive have what they need to support people and businesses through covid-19. That is on top of the furlough scheme and the bounce back loans, so it is clear that we have put that support in place.
On the wider NDNA commitments, it is important to continue to deliver on them despite the challenges of covid-19. We have been doing that. We have been having joint board meetings, which I instigated recently. The next one will be in January. We will continue to assess the programme of work to deliver NDNA. It is important that some of those things are done, particularly the independent fiscal council that can give transparency and confidence to people about the expenditure of the Northern Ireland Executive.
I am sure the hon. Lady knows that policing in Northern Ireland is devolved, so it is a matter for the Northern Ireland Executive. I know from my conversations with the Chief Constable that they work closely with the Police Service of Northern Ireland and I encourage them to make sure that they have the funding that they need.
The Secretary of State will be aware that strengthening the Union is also a matter for the local community level. He will know of the excellent and transformational work of organisations such as the Resurgam Trust in my constituency and the Schomberg Society in the Mournes. The Government committed to establishing a culture and community fund as part of New Decade, New Approach to promote our heritage and culture at community level. What steps has he taken to implement that fund?
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. We provided a further £2 billion of funding to implement the New Decade, New Approach agreement. We have ring-fenced £140 million for Northern Ireland’s unique circumstances. That fund can cover a range of projects that support community reconciliation initiatives to ensure that we are removing barriers and bringing people in Northern Ireland together. The allocation of funding for specific projects remains subject to final decisions, but Ministers will be taking those forward through the joint board, which is now meeting regularly.
Staying with the agreement, the Government also gave a commitment to scope the establishment of a Northern Ireland hub here in London. Given the current economic situation, does the Secretary of State agree that such a hub is important for strengthening Northern Ireland’s economic position and its trade with the rest of the United Kingdom?
Yes, I absolutely agree with the right hon. Gentleman. We are committed to the agreement and to scoping the potential for a Northern Ireland hub in London. It is something I believe would be good for Northern Ireland; I absolutely share that view. We will be working with the Northern Ireland Executive to explore the options for delivering such a hub, which would complement Invest Northern Ireland and the Northern Ireland Office itself in ensuring that Northern Ireland is fully and loudly represented at the heart of government and at the heart of the UK in our country.
Universal Credit Migration: Child Poverty
The UK Government have provided unprecedented levels of support to families and employers throughout the covid crisis. We want to see a prospering economy that reduces child poverty. Welfare is a devolved matter in Northern Ireland, with no official statistical information yet available on its impact in the current year. However, the Northern Ireland Executive are committed to combating poverty via the anti-poverty and child poverty strategies, which were agreed in “New Decade, New Approach”.
The first lockdown saw an 80% increase in universal credit claims in Northern Ireland. The five- week wait for universal credit increases family debt and child poverty. With Christmas seven weeks away, and in the middle of a second lockdown, is it not now time to end the five-week delay?
I say to the hon. Gentleman that nobody has to wait five weeks for a payment under universal credit. Advances are a mechanism for getting claimants faster access to their entitlement, allowing them to receive 13 payments over 12 months, with up to 12 months to repay the advance. Basic eligibility checks for advances are now completed remotely, allowing people to access the support they need despite covid-19 restrictions. The repayment time for advances has already been extended to 12 months, and it will be further extended to 24 months from October 2021.
The legacy of the troubles and the intergenerational trauma means that Northern Ireland has some of the highest levels of disability, mental health issues and low pay in the entire UK. This means that the £20 per week cut to universal credit planned for 2021 will hit Northern Ireland the hardest of all. Will the Minister urge his colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions to rule it out, to stop families sliding into hardship?
I recognise the factors that the hon. Lady points to, and it is important that there was extra funding under NDNA to recognise some of the unique factors facing Northern Ireland. The extra £20 a week has been put into universal credit to support people through this difficult time.
We are ever mindful that Northern Ireland has already given £1.3 million for free school meals. Can the Minister further outline the impact of child poverty on the additional 100,000 children in Northern Ireland who are now on that list due to covid, according to the facts from the Department for the Economy? Will he also tell us whether additional assistance will be available for those in households who are now excluded from tax credits if they have a third or fourth child born after the 2017 cut-off date? How can we help these extra children who are now subject to child poverty?
I do not recognise that estimate. The official figures that the Executive have published suggest that child poverty has decreased in both absolute and relative terms since 2015, but I absolutely recognise the need to provide extra support during this time. There is extra resource available to the Executive in terms of the £2.4 billion provided so far, and we will continue to work closely with them to support families in Northern Ireland, while recognising the £9 billion that has already been put into strengthening the welfare system across the UK.
Leaving the EU without a Deal
The UK left the EU on 31 January 2020 on the basis of the deal set out in the withdrawal agreement, including the Northern Ireland protocol, which will apply in all circumstances. The question now is whether we can agree a deeper trading relationship with the EU, similar to the one that it has with Canada, or whether our trading arrangements will be more comparable to those the EU has with countries such as Australia. We have taken extensive steps, in close co-operation with the EU, to implement the protocol, and we continue to work with the Northern Ireland Executive and a wide range of stakeholders across Northern Ireland to deliver this by the end of the transition period.
The health service in Northern Ireland is facing incredible pressure from the pandemic, with warnings from some hospitals about running out of beds and key supplies for covid and non-covid patients. The Minister will know that our health service relies on medicines from across the EU and on co-operation with the health service in the Republic of Ireland, which is made possible through the EU common framework. Does the Minister agree that the disruptive end of the transition—right in the middle of this battle with the pandemic and winter pressures—is bad enough, but that leaving without a deal would be downright dangerous for people’s health in Northern Ireland?
Let me agree with the hon. Lady about the huge importance of the national health service, which benefits Northern Ireland enormously, and the enormous importance of access to supplies of medicines, both through the Republic of Ireland and from the rest of the UK. It is important that Northern Ireland’s position and the supply of goods to Northern Ireland are protected by the protocol and that unfettered access is delivered both in terms of north-south movements and of access to the rest of the United Kingdom, which provides crucial support to Northern Ireland.
May I wish you a happy first anniversary in the Chair, Mr Speaker?
Criminality, smuggling and modern slavery, as my hon. Friend knows, cannot be the winners in a no-deal Brexit scenario at the end of this year. Can he assure me that the importance of these issues with regard to Northern Ireland are well understood at the heart of government and that he and the Secretary of State are doing all they can to combat them going forward?
Absolutely. I recognise that the Chair of the Select Committee is doing an important inquiry into these issues. I have written to him with some initial written evidence, and I look forward to giving more detailed evidence in due course. The protocol does preserve the huge gains of the peace process and the Good Friday agreement by removing the major security risks associated with any requirement for checks at the land border and by providing a practical solution to avoid such processes on the island of Ireland. All the way through the implementation of the protocol, we have remained very aware of other potential security implications, including in the event of a non-negotiated outcome with the EU. We have well-developed and well-rehearsed plans in place, and we believe that the excellent working relationship between the Police Service of Northern Ireland and An Garda Síochána will continue, but I absolutely recognise the importance of the issues that he raises.
The Minister, Lord Agnew, said that there had been a “head-in-the-sand” approach by traders to the Brexit changes to come, but less than 60 days until the protocol comes into force, the IT system to underpin custom declarations is not fully operational, the border operating model has not been published and the port infrastructure needed is now rated undeliverable by the Department in charge. This is a monumental failure of preparation, but it is not the fault of business; it is the fault of this Government— the only people to have their head in the sand. Will the Minister now apologise to Northern Ireland businesses for the worry, the stress and the additional burdens that they are having to bear?
I recognise the importance of providing certainty and information to Northern Ireland businesses. We have set up the business engagement forum through which we have been engaging with businesses large and small to provide them with the detail, but, as the hon. Lady will recognise, talks are ongoing in the Joint Committee. What we need to do is ensure that we deliver the smoothest access to protect unfettered access, as we are doing through the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill, and to deliver on the protocol for those businesses to provide the certainty that they need.
The leaders of the Scottish Episcopal Church, the Church of Scotland, the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland, the United Reform Church Scotland, the Methodist Church Scotland and Quakers in Scotland are united in their concern over the UK Government’s actions on Brexit, with their plan to break international law, to act on devolved matters against the wishes of devolved Administrations and to place the peace of Northern Ireland in peril. That concern, they say, is shared by church leaders across the Irish sea. What can the Minister say to reassure these representatives of Scotland’s faith communities that his Government are listening to anyone as they career forward on their misguided path?
I reiterate to the hon. Lady the answer that I gave earlier that we have already left the European Union with a deal and that we want to make sure that we deliver on our commitments under the protocol, absolutely protecting our commitment to the peace process and the Good Friday agreement. I am afraid that, rather than raising concerns about the reality of the Government’s intention, some of these people may have been misled by some of the statements from the SNP.
Transport Connections to Great Britain
The Government are building a stronger and fairer economy for the future. To support the aim, the Prime Minister has announced an independent Union connectivity review, which is being led by Sir Peter Hendy. The review will consider how connectivity by road, rail, air and sea across the whole UK can support economic growth, increase quality of life and strengthen our Union.
The north Wales main line railway connects Great Britain across the Irish sea and is vital for travel. Will my hon. Friend work with the Department for Transport and the Union connectivity review to see the line enhanced for the benefit of my constituents and the people of Northern Ireland?
My hon. Friend speaks up for north Wales effectively and makes an important point. The Government will engage positively with the Union connectivity review, which will look at how we can improve the transport landscape across the whole UK, including connections between Wales and Northern Ireland. Levelling up across the whole United Kingdom is an absolute priority for this Government.
What input can the Minister say that he has had into the Union connectivity review, and how tangible does he expect the outcome to be in promoting and cementing business and cultural relationships across the whole United Kingdom?
The hon. Gentleman is right to point out that connectivity is crucial to business. As such, it will not surprise him that both the Secretary of State and I, along with the Department for Transport, the Cabinet Office and other groups, have met the Union connectivity review to make clear the importance of this for Northern Ireland.
Net Zero Emissions Target: Manufacturers
The Government are committed to meeting our target of net zero emissions by 2050. The Secretary of State and I regularly engage with businesses across the manufacturing sector to discuss how the green economy is an opportunity to drive economic growth and reduce emissions in Northern Ireland. We are pleased that the Northern Ireland Executive have endorsed the extension of the Environment Bill to Northern Ireland and have pledged to pass a climate change Act.
I thank the Minister for his answer. I know that he is a keen advocate of the hydrogen economy, as am I. Manufacturers such as Wrightbus in Northern Ireland are leading the way in the production of hydrogen buses—a perfect example of how we can decarbonise public transport. Does the Minister agree that greater investment in the hydrogen economy is essential not only for our net zero targets but for building jobs in every part of the United Kingdom?
Let me say an absolute yes, and I congratulate my hon. Friend on the work that he does with the all-party parliamentary group on hydrogen. Northern Ireland has proven expertise with hydrogen electric power in the bus sector, and we have seen the introduction of the world’s first hydrogen and electric double-decker bus by Wrightbus this year. We continue to support and promote hydrogen technologies in Northern Ireland and right across the UK. The UK Government have already invested £121 million into UK hydrogen technology, and we are actively exploring with UK Departments and with the Executive how best secure specific funding for hydrogen production in Northern Ireland.
I am sure that the Minister will join me in welcoming the acquisition of Bombardier in Northern Ireland by Spirit AeroSystems. He well understands the importance of aerospace for the Northern Ireland economy, but the aerospace sector needs to transition to meet the needs of the green economy, so will the Northern Ireland Office be a powerful advocate in government for a substantial investment in green technologies across the aerospace sector throughout the UK?
The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful point. I very much welcome the news that Spirit AeroSystems has acquired Shorts. I recently met with union representatives, who outlined their concerns about the immediate challenges facing the aerospace industry. This investment in such a major local employer of high-quality jobs is an important step in providing certainty to the company and its employees at a difficult time for the industry. Of course, there is much more to do, and the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that innovation and green investment have an important part to play in the recovery phase. The UK Government will be doing everything we can, working alongside the Executive, to support a strong economic recovery and innovation in the green economy in Northern Ireland.
End of Transition Period: Ports of Entry
The Government continue to engage regularly with the Northern Ireland Executive as we get on with delivering the protocol and preparing for the end of the transition period. As well as working with the Executive, we are working with port authorities, district councils and other stakeholders in Northern Ireland to deliver protocol requirements at pace. We are also continuing discussions with the EU in the Joint Committee, informed by close working with the Executive, to secure a pragmatic approach to agrifood checks.
Last month, the operators of Northern Ireland’s four ports told Stormont that facilities to check goods arriving from Great Britain would not be in place by the end of transition. There were also concerns about the IT system, potential delays and the lack of clarity from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. With eight weeks to go, this is an absolute shambles. Who does the Minister hold responsible?
The work is continuing. As we have previously set out, we are expanding some existing entry points for agrifood controls in Northern Ireland, building on what already happens at ports such as Larne and Belfast to ensure that new processes are as streamlined and efficient as possible. We continue to work closely with the Executive, port authorities, district councils and other stakeholders in Northern Ireland to take this work forward at pace, but the hon. Lady will recognise that some of these issues are subject to ongoing discussions in the Joint Committee.
The Minister rightfully has a reputation as being a decent individual, but will he not now apologise to businesses that so close to the beginning of next year—so close to the new regime coming in—businesses still do not know what regime they are going to operate under? Is not an apology now absolutely necessary from this Government to businesses in Northern Ireland?
Let me first say what a pleasure it is to see the hon. Gentleman, if only on the screen, and welcome him back to the House, certainly from my perspective. In the last three months, we have published, on 7 August, operational guidance to Northern Ireland businesses covering customs, sanitary and phytosanitary measures and manufacturing goods, announced a £200 million trader support scheme service to support traders in Northern Ireland to meet the requirements of the protocol, announced over £150 million of investment in IT systems needed to operate the protocol’s requirements, and made progress on the recruitment and training of new staff to operate the protocol. However, I absolutely recognise the need to provide greater certainty, and we will continue to do that both through the business engagement group and through our work on the Joint Committee.
The Prime Minister was asked—
The whole House is talking about the result of a heavily contested election—and indeed it is a year ago to the day, Mr Speaker, that you were elected Speaker. May I, on behalf of all Members, wish you therefore a very happy anniversary, and thank you, Mr Speaker, for making the speakership great again? [Interruption.] Thank you, Mr Speaker.
This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in this House I shall have further such meetings later today.
The city-wide testing trial starting in Liverpool on Friday using the new lateral flow tests will cut the time to get results, cut the spread of the virus by identifying people who are infected but not showing symptoms, and vastly reduce both the number of people and the time involved in isolating, so the benefits to the NHS, to schools and to business are profound. When does the Prime Minister think the results from this trial will be available and its benefits extended across the UK?
Can I start with the elections in the United States? Whatever the results, will the Prime Minister join me in saying that it is not for a candidate to decide which votes do and do not count or when to stop counting? The next President must be the free and fair choice of the American people.
Can I also express my revulsion at the terrorist attacks in Nice and Vienna? I am sure I speak for the whole House in saying that our thoughts are with all those affected.
Of course, Mr Speaker, I join the congratulations on your one-year anniversary.
Turning now, if I may, to covid-19, on 21 September, when the Government’s scientific advisers indicated that a circuit break would bring the virus back under control, the number of people that day who tragically lost their lives to covid-19 was 11. The Prime Minister ignored that advice. On Monday, 42 days later, the number of people who tragically lost their lives to covid-19 was 397—that is a staggering 35-fold increase. Does the Prime Minister understand the human cost of his delay in acting?
In answer to the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s opening question, of course we do not comment, as a UK Government, on the democratic processes of our friends and allies, and I do not think, in all seriousness, he would expect otherwise.
Turning to the point about covid and the decision—the difficult decision—that this House has to face tonight, I think I speak for many hon. Members across the House when I say that I do not think any Government or any Parliament would want to impose these measures lightly on the people of this country.
It was always right to pursue a local and regional approach, as our scientific advisers said. I will tell you why, Mr Speaker: because that regional approach was showing signs of working and still is showing signs of working. It did get the R—the transmission rate—down lower than it would otherwise have been. But we have to face the reality that, in common with many other countries in this part of the world, we are facing a surge in the virus, which this House must now tackle with the measures we have outlined. They will, as hon. Members know, expire on 2 December, and I hope very much that Opposition Members will support them tonight.
I am sure that nobody wants a lockdown, but it is a question of timing. Had the decision been taken a few weeks ago to put in place a circuit break, it could have been done for two to three weeks and taken advantage of schools being closed over half term. Now the Prime Minister’s proposed lockdown will be for at least four weeks, which means that businesses will be closed for longer and in the critical run-up to Christmas. Does the Prime Minister understand the economic cost of his delay in acting?
It is precisely because we understand the economic cost and the social and psychological damage of lockdowns that it was right to go for the local and regional solution, which was supported by many Members—indeed, it was supported by the right hon. and learned Gentleman, as long as it was useful to him for a while. That was the right approach. By the expiry of this period on 2 December, as I said in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones), we will be rolling out across this country new types of testing on a scale never seen before, beginning this week in Liverpool, enabling us to detect asymptomatic cases. That is crucial, because as the House knows, 70% of transmission is taking place between people who have no symptoms. That will enable us to find new ways on a mass scale to break the chains of transmission. I want to particularly the Labour leadership of Liverpool for their co-operation—a manner of co-operation that I commend to those on the Opposition Benches.
The Prime Minister’s delay in acting is a huge failure of leadership, and it is no good saying that there was support for the tier system. As he well knows, I looked at the evidence and made a decision three weeks ago that the right thing was a circuit break. I do not buy the argument—I do not think anybody does—that the facts suddenly changed this weekend. The direction of travel and the number of infections, hospital admissions and, tragically, deaths have been clear for weeks.
But we are where we are. Millions of people across the country are really concerned about the restrictions that will come into force at midnight tonight. I accept that we all have a duty to pull together and try to make this lockdown work, so I just want to ask some basic and direct questions on behalf of those millions of people. First, will the lockdown end on 2 December come what may, or will it depend on the circumstances at the time? People need to know that.
I am grateful for the support that the right hon. and learned Gentleman is now offering, and I can answer him very simply. As the House knows, and as I informed him repeatedly on Monday, these autumn measures to combat the surge will expire automatically on 2 December, and we will then, I hope very much, be able to get this country going again and get businesses and shops open again in the run-up to Christmas. But that depends on us all doing our bit now to make sure that we get the R down. I have no doubt that we can and that we will be able to go forward from 2 December with a very different approach, but of course, it will be up to the House of Commons to decide thereafter what to do.
I accept that there will be a vote in the House. That does not tell us anything; that is the process. I want to press the Prime Minister. Is he saying that if, by 2 December, the R rate has not come below 1 and is still rising, we will come out of lockdown come what may, with infection rates going up on 2 December? That does not seem sensible to me.
It is thanks to the efforts of the British people that the R is now currently only just above 1 as it is. We are doing the right and the prudent thing at the right time to get that infection rate down, and these measures, as I have said repeatedly to the House, will expire on 2 December. If the right hon. and learned Gentleman is now saying he wants to protract them beyond 2 December, then perhaps he should make his position clear.
I just want some basic honesty, and this is serious. If the infection rate—[Interruption.] We have to look the public in the eye. If the infection rate is still going up on 2 December, it is madness to come out of the system back to the tiered system, when we know the one thing the tiered system cannot cope with is an R rate above 1. That is the basic point. We can come back to it on 2 December, as we always do, but that is the point I am making.
The one thing we know a circuit break or lockdown does is buy time, and the Prime Minister needs to use that time to fix Test and Trace. I know he will talk about the capacity of 500,000, what is going on in Liverpool, how it is world beating, etc., but we have been going round and round in circles on this. The latest figures show that 113,000 contacts were not even reached, and that is just in one week. Only 20% of those who should be isolating are doing so, and the majority of people still do not get results in 24 hours. So can the Prime Minister give a straight answer: what is he going to do in the next four weeks to fix this, because if he does not, we will be back here again?
With greatest respect to the right hon. and learned Gentleman, who has stood up and said that I will brag about NHS Test and Trace and its achievement of a target of capacity of 500,000, I am perfectly willing to accept the failings of NHS Test and Trace. Of course I am, and of course I take full responsibility for the frustrations people have experienced with that system, but to go from 3,000 tests a day, 2,000 tests a day to 500,000 is a quite remarkable feat. It is the biggest diagnostics exercise this country has ever carried out, and they are helping to drive down the R. They are doing, in my view, an absolutely invaluable job, whatever the difficulties they face. What we now need to do is to come together as a nation, briefly—if we can—put aside party political wrangling and point scoring, and work together, as I think he will tonight, to support this package to get the R down and allow us to go forward in a different way, with the mass testing that I have outlined from 2 December.
The Prime Minister must see that if four out of 10 of those who should be contacted are not being contacted, we have a problem in the system that needs to be fixed in the next four weeks.
Finally, I want to ask about care homes, which of course were hit so badly in the first wave of this pandemic. Can I pay tribute to all those working in care homes, who have given such dedication and commitment in the toughest of circumstances? We owe it to them not to repeat the mistakes of the first wave, but, Prime Minister, as we face the second wave, there is an increasing concern about the emotional wellbeing of those in care homes and their families if all visits are stopped. It must be possible to find a way—perhaps a dedicated family member scheme of some sort—to allow some safe visits to alleviate the huge fears of isolation and despair across the coming months. Will the Prime Minister work cross-party to find a scheme that will work for those in care and their families?
New guidance on care homes and visiting relatives safely—because the point the right hon. and learned Gentleman makes is incredibly important —is going to be announced today to try to strike the right balance between people’s real, real need to see their loved ones and obviously the risk of spreading the disease in care homes. We are going to be publishing some guidance about how that can be done today.
I am grateful for the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s offer to work collaboratively, but I have to say that the House will generally have noted that he has used this crisis as an opportunity to make political capital and to have what I think a shadow spokesman called a “good crisis”—a “good crisis”. Can I commend a different approach, because he has attacked the Government’s strategy? Can I commend a different approach? The former Labour leader, the right hon. former Member for Sedgefield, who is not as fashionable on those Benches as he once was or should be—[Interruption.] Not with all of them; perhaps on the Front Bench, but not all of them. He had written a good piece in today’s Daily Mail, in which he supports—broadly supports—this Government’s strategy: praising UK drugs companies for what they are doing; supporting our search for a vaccine; and supporting mass testing in Liverpool, which the right hon. and learned Gentleman deprecates. I think what he should do is actually take a leaf out of the Blair book, and by the way, I can tell him that Tony Blair would not have spent four years in the same shadow Cabinet as Jeremy Corbyn, standing shoulder to shoulder with him.
Let me take this opportunity to send my best wishes to our friends in the US during this anxious time. Donald Trump claimed an unsupported victory and major fraud, with millions of legitimate ballots left to count. I hope that the Prime Minister will join me in condemning his actions this morning.
On Monday, the Prime Minister agreed access to the furlough scheme for Scotland, at 80%, if lockdown restrictions require it. Subsequently, a number of his Ministers have rolled back on that promise, and the Scottish Government have not received any detail about what the commitment means in practice. Today is the Prime Minister’s opportunity to clear up this mess of his Government’s making. Will Scotland receive full 80% furlough and payments for the self-employed under current eligibility criteria, whenever that is requested by the Scottish Government in the months ahead?
I hesitate to accuse the right hon. Gentleman of failing to listen to what I said on Monday—I think he heard exactly what I said. I gave a commitment then, and I in no way budge from that. Furlough is a UK-wide scheme and it has helped to save about 10 million jobs in this country, including about 1 million in Scotland.
What the Prime Minister said on Monday was that if the devolved Administrations asked for furlough, it would be granted. That was the direct answer that he gave to the question. The Scottish Government have been waiting for clarity on whether Scotland will receive additional money as a result of increased spending from English local government, and there is also no clarity about whether the unlimited payments for business support in England will be made available on a similar demand-led basis. Will the Prime Minister clarify those two points now, and commit to confirming in writing to the Scottish Government today, that access to the furlough scheme will be there if they need it?
Perhaps the most efficient thing I can tell the right hon. Gentleman is that tomorrow, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor will be making a general statement about all the support and provisions that we are making for this latest phase to tackle the autumn surge of coronavirus. I repeat the points that I have made about Barnett consequentials—£7.2 billion has already gone to help Scotland, and we will support people in Scotland and throughout the UK during this crisis.
I thank my hon. Friend for campaigning for places of worship in the way that he does, and I am so deeply sorry that these restrictions have to be put in place right now. We will work as hard and fast as we can to allow people to worship in the way they want from 2 December, and that is why I hope the House will approve this package of measures tonight.
If every vote is counted in the US election, it is likely that Joe Biden will be the victor. The Prime Minister has a major challenge to build relationships with any incoming Administration. Therefore, in the light of Joe Biden’s entirely correct analysis of the impact on the Good Friday agreement of the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill, how quickly will the Prime Minister recognise the inevitable and remove those clauses from the Bill?
The UK Internal Market Bill, which has cross-party support, is a vital part of the armature—the skeletal structure—of the whole UK economy as we leave the European Union, and it ensures that goods and services placed on the market are available throughout the UK on the same terms. It is vital for our country and the hon. Gentleman should support it.
Yes, my hon. Friend is absolutely right. We stand shoulder to shoulder with France, as I have told President Macron, and shoulder to shoulder with Austria, as I have told Chancellor Kurz, in our joint war against this abominable ideology. Together, we will defeat it.
I do indeed congratulate all the voluntary organisations that have stepped up, and I am proud that this Government have also helped to fund them to the tune of billions of pounds—not just the £9 billion increase in universal credit, but of course an extra £1.1 billion going to help councils. This Government will ensure that no child goes hungry this Christmas— this winter—thanks to any inattention or inactivity by Government. Never forget that it was a Conservative Government that instituted free school meals for five, six and seven-year-olds after all the years Labour was in power.
I do indeed believe that such a deal would be massively in the interests of our EU friends and partners, as well as anybody else, but that is of course up to them. What I can tell my hon. Friend is that we are supporting green technology of all kinds, particularly hybrid and battery vehicles, and we have just put another £49 million into grants for exactly the kind of vehicles that he and I have inspected and driven together so that this country can bounce back greener.
The hon. Gentleman is entirely right, in the sense that, although the absolute numbers have not gone up in the way we feared, we are unquestionably seeing repeat victimisation in domestic contexts. It is intolerable. As the House knows, we have set up helplines to tackle it, and we are investing in refuges and independent domestic violence advisers. It is absolutely crucial that we tackle the scourge of domestic abuse and also deal with the mental health consequences for the victims. That is why we are investing massively in mental health and mental health charities.
An independent study published recently suggests that the writing ability of year 7 pupils is some 22 months behind expectations. My right hon. Friend will know that it is the life chances of the most disadvantaged that are hit hardest when schools close. We have rightly said that those children are an absolute priority for this Government. Will my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister give an assurance that, first, we will do whatever it takes to make up for lost ground and, secondly, we will never again contemplate closing our schools?
I thank my right hon. Friend. He is completely right about the paramount importance of keeping our schools open. Out of this crisis has come at least one potentially innovative idea that can really help exactly the types of pupils he is talking about: one-on-one tutoring of the kind that we have been able to support with our catch-up premiums and our national tutoring programme. As we come out of this pandemic, I want to see us keeping up with one-on-one tutoring because I believe it can make a huge difference to children’s confidence and academic attainment.
I listen to a huge range of scientific advice, and indeed there are eminent scientists and epidemiologists who say that we should not do any kind of lockdowns or measures like this at all—David Nabarro of the World Health Organisation, whom I esteem greatly, for instance. We have to take a balanced decision and make a judgment about when the right moment is. The hon. Gentleman talks about the long-term effects on people’s lives. We have to make a balanced judgment about the effects on people’s mental health, livelihoods and prospects, the prospects of young people, and the importance of saving lives and protecting our NHS. That is the balance we are trying to strike tonight, and I hope he will support it.
In a few short weeks, we end the transition period with the European Union. May I ask the Prime Minister to confirm that the transition team will endeavour to keep Dover clear of traffic gridlock, and that work will continue at pace on the proposed upgrade to the A2 between Whitfield and Dover’s eastern docks?
I thank my hon. Friend and I congratulate her on her campaign for the people of Dover. I can tell her that, thanks to her lobbying, Highways England is now developing plans to improve Brenley Corner junction and access into Dover along the remaining single-carriageway sections of the A2 from Lydden.
I hesitate to accuse the hon. Lady of not listening to what I have just said, but I want to repeat that the furlough is a UK-wide scheme that will, of course, continue to be available to the people of Scotland. For any further elucidation of the details of the entire package of support that this Government are putting in place for the people of the entire UK, I direct her to what my right hon. Friend the Chancellor will say tomorrow.
A potential vaccine for covid provides us all with hope, and that hope is thanks to investment in research and development. The Prime Minister has pledged more money for research than any of his predecessors put together, to deliver on his vision of the UK as a global science superpower. Does he agree that maintaining the Government’s commitment to spend 2.4% of GDP on research and development by 2027 will also be essential for that vision?
I am very interested in what the hon. Lady says because, as she knows, this Government are investing massively in 5,000 low-carbon buses. I would be interested to know what type of coaches she is talking about and the details of the company that she rightly represents. That company should be eligible for bounce back loans and for all sorts of support. She is shaking her head, so I invite her to write to me with details of that company’s needs, and I will do my best to oblige her.
Northern communities, including my Cheadle constituents, have already been subject to restrictions for months, which has meant a disproportionate effect on northern livelihoods. The importance of the Prime Minister’s levelling-up agenda has never been starker, so today I ask him to fast-track infrastructure spending in the north, including Northern Powerhouse Rail and a new train station in Cheadle. Will the Government, with northern MPs and business leaders, formulate a northern economic recovery plan, to ensure that our region comes out of the pandemic stronger than ever?
Will my right hon. Friend join me in thanking teachers across Elmet and Rothwell for keeping the schools open this term, and does he share my frustration that half of the laptops that he provided to Leeds City Council for distribution to the city’s most vulnerable learners remain in the storeroom at Leeds Civic Hall? What can be done to get the Labour council to pull their socks up?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. That is indeed disappointing, because over 2,500 laptops and tablets and 400 routers were delivered to Leeds City Council for disadvantaged 10-year-old pupils. I will do whatever I can to spring those laptops from the cupboard as fast as I can.
They are not going to. The furlough scheme, as the hon. Gentleman knows, was extended until the end of October. We are putting in measures now to support people across the whole UK throughout this period until 2 December, and that is the right thing to do. We are putting our arms round the people of this country to get them through the pandemic and beyond.
I understand that the Prime Minister will soon receive from the Department of Health and Social Care and the Department for Transport a recommendation that we enable quarantine periods to be cut for air passengers who have tested covid-negative. When is a decision likely to be made, and will he look favourably on this proposal, which will allow the aviation industry in this country to get back to its rightful place?
I thank my hon. Friend. He is right to lobby for the aviation industry. This country has the third biggest aviation industry in the world. It is currently having a terrible, terrible time, and my sympathies are very much with all the employees involved. One of the benefits of getting polymerase chain reaction testing up to 500,000 a day is that we have new possibilities for testing of all kinds across the country. We will be bringing forward further measures and proposals as soon they are finalised.
What has possibly undermined people’s confidence in, and understanding of, what the Government are trying to do is the constant party political point-scoring, and the attempts by the Labour party and the hon. Lady to obscure what we are trying to do. The best thing would be to advise her constituents on what to do: follow the guidance, and get the virus down—and let us all do it together.
Levelling up will matter more than ever as we emerge from the pandemic next year, and I was delighted to see the first town deals announced last week. They will deliver transformative investment for places such as Darlington. Will my right hon. Friend prioritise rapid decision making in the cases of Middlesbrough and Loftus, which have applications pending for this vital fund?
Yes indeed, and I congratulate my hon. Friend on lobbying for Middlesbrough in the way that he has. I can tell him that Tees Valley is already getting £126 million from the local growth fund. The devolution deal will mean £450 million extra for transport, skills and employment, and Middlesbrough will get at least £500,000 from the towns fund, thanks at least in part to his lobbying.
The hon. Lady is right to draw attention to the issue. In addition to the £600 million care home action plan that we announced earlier this year, we will put further funding into care homes in the short term, but also making sure that we have long-term reform of that sector. As I said to the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer) earlier, we will bring out specific guidance to enable people to visit loved ones in the way that they should and they must.
My right hon. Friend and I share similar libertarian views, and I guess that some of the decisions he has taken for the country’s common good were contrary to his personal creed and feelings. While those of us with higher political morals than Captain Hindsight on the Opposition Front Bench have sought to do our collective best during recent times, what does my right hon. Friend believe are the views regarding antisemitism, following the recent Equality and Human Rights Commission report, that the current Leader of the Opposition—a knight of the realm, no less—holds now? Does my right hon. Friend believe that they are any different from those the right hon. and learned Gentleman displayed when serving the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn)?
The only comment I would make on all that was that I was genuinely amazed that the leader of the Unite union should make a remark of the kind that he did, and that the Labour party should remain in receipt of funding from Unite and take no steps to dissociate itself from that union after that remark. I did find that absolutely astonishing.
I am not going to pretend that every aspect of NHS Test and Trace has worked in the way that I wanted to, but as I said earlier on, it has achieved some very considerable things. What I think it has also done throughout the pandemic, from the get-go, is work with local authorities and local people. What we will be doing now, as we roll out the mass testing that I have described to the House in Liverpool and elsewhere, will be led by local people, and we will be working with those local authorities to deliver those programmes.